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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 May 2006, 12:33 GMT 13:33 UK
Croquet's dark side
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Croquet course
Players must get their balls through six hoops twice and then onto a peg

The angry press coverage of John Prescott's game of croquet puts the spotlight on a game struggling with its identity.

Some of the coverage of the deputy prime minister's distinctive choice in recreation has centred on its reputation as a sport for toffs, juxtaposing this with the working class origins of the former ship steward and MP for Hull East.

But as much as the world of croquet is fighting hard to shed its image as a sport of the posh, there is a darker side to the stereotyping of the hoops-and-mallets game, a belief that it is a uniquely "vicious" pastime.

One correspondent to the Daily Telegraph describes it as "one of the most self-serving, unsporting games ever played, requiring ruthless meanness and ungenerosity of spirit towards one's opponents".

Another correspondent, in the Times, recalls an episode where the Archdeacon of Oakham was quite insistent that it was "a vicious game".

For the uninitiated observer there is no escaping the observation that a major part of the game seems to involve bashing other people's balls off the pitch.

Why shouldn't croquet players be admired as well for the vicious tactics they employ to win on the croquet court
James Hawkins
Croquet World Online

Association Croquet, the most commonly played competitive version of the game, is played with four coloured balls, either in singles or doubles form. A side wins when it manages to get all of its balls through the six hoops on the court twice, in a specified route, and on to a peg in the centre.

A major element is the roquet, when you strike somebody else's ball, you get a chance to blast it out of the way, and another shot as a bonus.

Klim Seabright, secretary of the Croquet Association, the sport's equivalent of the FA, says the sport is working to shrug off stereotypes, including its reputation as a nasty game.

"You are trying to stop the opponent. There is that competitive element but I wouldn't describe it as vicious. At the same time you would try and position your balls in a certain place, you can hit your opponent's ball off the lawn."

He says some people are under the impression you can stand on your ball while biffing away the opponent's, but that this was outlawed in 1920.

Social spectrum

Mr Seabright paints a picture of a sport taking advantage of the sudden wave of publicity to highlight its drive to get people involved in clubs, and at the same time ending its associations with posh people, the elderly, and cads.

Croquet image
Its refined image belies fierce competition, say some
"It goes back to before World War I. At most croquet clubs you wouldn't play at the weekend, you would play in the week. So who would have been available to play - the landed gentry, military officers.

"If you look at the club I belong to, they range right across the social spectrum. I would suggest I don't sound particularly posh. And if you look at the England team, most people wouldn't guess the average age is 39."

But there are dissenting voices. James Hawkins, co-editor of Croquet World Online, has just published a piece suggesting that the sport could do worse than exploit its vicious reputation.

"If we admire members of Parliament who take the floor to rip their opponent to shreds in a debate," he writes, "and if we cheer hockey stars who come as close to killing their adversaries on the field as the referees will allow - all in the give and take of the game - why shouldn't croquet players be admired as well for the vicious tactics they employ to win on the croquet court."

Mr Hawkins notes that of all the stereotypes it is likely to be the one least likely to repel people from the sport.

Kenneth Hope-Jones, who encountered the viciously-playing Archdeacon of Oakham says croquet would continue to suffer from a strangely split image.

"There are two opposite views. One is that it is about playing on the vicarage lawn with cucumber sandwiches and that it is very genteel, another that it is a very vicious game where you bash your opponents' balls into the rose bushes.

"But it is not a vicious game at all, it is in fact very much like snooker."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Why do I get the feeling Owen from Stevenage is thinking of la crosse? I'm a hockey player myself and can't see why hockey is mentioned so many times in this article - it is nothing like croquet. Croquet's more like a cross between golf and marbles!
Ian, Putney, London

If competition is vicious, then Croquet is vicious. It is a sport (or game, if you prefer) and the nature of sport is to win within the rules. Ice Hockey rules permit 'checking', which may be perceived as vicious. But frankly, Hockey would be dull without it. Ditto Croquet.
Alex, London

I'm ashamed to say that i have been practicing with my Father all weekend in preparation for the family tournament next weekend! Croquet is an extremely tactical game, where stealth, tactics and unerring accuracy are absolutely vital. What makes it a great game is a handicapping system that works as a real leveller and the fact that the young can have tough games against the old.
Olly Smith, W. Sussex

I nearly didn't get married because of croquet. My fiance was one of my opponents, and I played so keenly that she stomped off the green in tears, and complained to my mother that I was being "so mean!". What rankled was that my mother, who played a nasty game herself, sympathised with her.
Neil Murray, Tunbridge Wells, UK

We have the same problem in Sweden. Most people have never seen a real game of Association Croquet, and their oppinion is based on the type of croquet played in a backyard. But we have a steadily growing number of clubs and players, and each year some more people discover what a fantastic sport Croquet can be, if played correctly. I think the earlier post here, comparing croquet and snooker is a good one, that sport is the one with most resemblance to croquet.
Simon Carlsson, Varberg, Sweden

I spend as much time playing croquet as studying at university, and I'm as genial as they come.
Rob Eaton, Durham

Aren't most games 'vicious' when played by a competitor who hasn't learnt the best way to play the game and who faces a more enterprising opponent? Any fool can 'bash your opponents balls into the rose bushes', but as fun as that may be, it doesn't progress your position in the game very much whatsoever. Basic game theory states that you should utilise all the balls available to you; a good player will have the skills to utilise all the balls on the lawn, and will have the tactical knowledge to ensure that any 'bush bashers' don't stand a chance.

Anyway, Croquet when played in a bumpy garden with long grass and a tree in the middle is somewhat different to Association Croquet played at the club level - primarily, there aren't any bushes to bash your balls into.
James H, Edinburgh, UK

Snooker evolved from billiards which was originally devised as an indoor version of croquet, I believe. Now no more of this flapdoodle.
skid, UK

Croquet? Vicious? Come on! How can something as genteel as the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (also known as "Wimbledon"!) be described as "vicious"?
Matthew, London, England

I'm a 24-year-old man left totally astounded by the various interpretations that Croquet is deemed vicious by virtue of the fact that people play the game to win. What's new there? You'll be telling me next that chess is a barbaric practice because somebody took a piece of wood of his/her opponent.
Andy Nappin, Derbyshire

The description of Association Croquet in this article misses the point. Yes, when you hit (roquet) another ball you get two extra strokes: the croquet stroke, where you place your ball in contact with the roqueted ball and hit it so that both balls move, plus a continuation stroke. But the object in the croquet stroke is not usually to send the other ball off the court: indeed if you do so your turn comes to an end and you don't get the continuation.

Instead, the object is to place the croqueted ball where it is going to be useful to you later in your turn. It's very much like snooker. You are playing a break, and it's only when approaching the end of your break that you need to think about making things hard for your opponent with what is effectively a safety shot. There is another version of the game called Golf Croquet in which you do often want to blast your opponent's ball to a far boundary. Golf Croquet has a much better claim to be "vicious" than Association Croquet.
Fergus McInnes, Edinburgh, UK

I first played croquet over 30 years ago as a student when I was 20, and when the rules were explained and we played our first riound , we were left with the impression that, whilst not exactly vicious, it was certainly a cutthroat game.
Bob, Cardiff

We used to play when I was a boy. My recollection of the game was that if you got too nasty then you generally lost. I can't understand why people think you stand on the ball to hit your opponent away. One of the skills is to strike your opponent's ball away from the hoop and yours towards it.
Pete Porchos, Stratford on Avon

My dad (aged 58) got into croquet about 2 years ago, through joining a local club. He's definitely not what you'd call a posh person! I've met a lot of the players at the club, including some of the best players in the world, and the trend seems to be moving away from the stereotype of 'posh, elderly people'. There are schoolteachers and all other kinds of people who play croquet, including some relatively young people (aged 19). I wouldn't call it a vicious game, although it is certainly a very tactical one. Much like chess... and you wouldn't call chess a vicious game, would you?
Jo, Sweden, ex-pat UK

Given that croquet is one of the few sports with sufficient kit provided to stake out your opponent spreadeagle on the lawn if they challenge your sense of fair play, new players should approach the game with caution.
Karolina, Brighton

I didn't realise that croquet was a real game. I thought is was just scene setting for Agatha Cristie plots. Might give is a try (without the accompanying murder of course).
John, Hartlepool

'Very much like snooker'? I don't think so. Since when in snooker are you allowed to 'bash your opponents balls into the rose bushes'? It's a sedate game of skill, requiring gentlemanly conduct, a keen eye, and nerves of steel, using precision made equipment. Croquet is more like a cross between ice hockey and Aussie Rules football, using something akin to a sledgehammer.
Owen , Stevenage, UK

I played croquet at school and very much enjoyed it. It was ideal for someone like me who is more academic than athletic, because you must calculate the angle at which you need to strike the ball rather than needing strength or speed to win. Great fun!
Flash Wilson, UK

It's a game that brings out people's nasty side. A few years ago was playing doubles and I had the black ball. My opponents weren't willing to stop play for bad light (it was evening) even though my partner and I were willing to concede victory! I also remember that that the pitch was marked with tyre tracks made by the Queen Mother's car having driven across it earlier in the day.
Steven Wilson, Cambridge

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